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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, September 23, 2006
    Thick descriptions
    All this tenuous, half-formed stuff I've been writing about urban life on these pages, others have been doing with a lot more depth for many years. It's been good recently to meet some of these people and, through their acquaintance, step up the learning curve a bit more.

    This week Andrew Davey sent me an article from the good but pricey City journal, by Gareth Stanton, called Peckham Tales. It's an exercise in what social scientist Clifford Geertz calls 'thick description', looking at 'the meanings behind actions and their symbolic import in society or between communicators'. I never realised it before but I guess that's what I was trying to do in running workshops on wheelie bins.

    Stanton looks at Peckham life from all sorts of angles - how it's been represented on TV (Del Boy, Desmonds, and Damilola Taylor), its iconic buildings (The Pioneer Health Centre and Wil Alsop's Peckham Library), The Peckham Society and its archives, traditional butchers and the religious life of the area. It's the latter 'thick description' which chimed in with something else I've been reading since Thursday's National Estates Churches Network conference: Joe Hasler's excellent booklet, Mind Body and Estates: Outer Estate Ministry and Working Class Culture.

    Joe (who's been at this for thirty years) makes some valuable observations about the physicality of working-class culture, for instance the importance of 'doing things right' at funerals, how at ease working-class people are with the corpse, which 'has a place within a social context'. And Gareth Stanton observes that physicality is an important part of religious observance in Peckham:

    The walking from service to service, ‘traipsing’ [recalls Florence Pankhurst, born in 1917]. After morning service back home for lunch, then back for Sunday school. Then home for tea and back again for evening service:
    'At the end of the service we did not go home - oh no! The drunks came in from the pubs and the lights went out. The place was well equipped with a projector and screen; we also sang Sankey hymns. At the end of the service we had the journey home. Oh how my legs ached on Sundays with all that walking!’
    .. there is something in the physicality of these memories: the walking, the drunks belting out the Sankey hymns, the aching.

    I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do with these reflections with reference to this place. But when I collapse back home tomorrow after a ten-hour day of traipsing, maybe I'll take comfort that I'm not just knackered, I'm a little bit more inculturated too.